Ask Gregg Popovich the secrets to the San Antonio Spurs sustained success on any given day and you’re likely to get one of two answers. On most days Popovich will simply flash that condescending gaze, staring daggers into your soul until you find yourself apologizing for wasting his time with such a stupid question.
Find Popovich in a good mood, however, and he will likely admit that everything he and general manager R.C. Buford have built comes down to two important things—luck, and not screwing things up.
It was luck to have landed the top pick in the right draft and selecting Tim Duncan. There was luck in finding some pieces around them, and beyond that, it’s been a matter of simply not screwing things up (harder than it sounds). For an example of just how difficult it can be, you can read Andrew Sharp’s article on Grantland today.
On Sunday, Popovich and the Spurs will square off against their polar opposites. If the San Antonio Spurs are the NBA’s model franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies are the greatest worst assembled team in NBA history.
The Memphis Grizzlies are, perhaps, the luckiest team in the NBA right now, which fits perfectly into the first part of Popovich’s formula to success. It’s the “don’t screw up” part that the Grizzlies astonishingly seem to ignore with almost no negative repercussions. The Memphis Grizzlies have screwed up, regularly, repeatedly, and royally.
And yet no one can deny how fun and legitimately imposing these Grizzlies are as we get ready for the Western Conference Finals.
To start with, the Grizzlies core of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol was created from a series of inexplicably horrible-to-laughable moves that, somehow, ALL MANAGED TO WORK OUT FOR THE BEST DESPITE LOGIC AND EVERYONE’S BELIEFS TO THE CONTRARY!!!
Even one of their earliest terrible trades, sending a pick to Detroit that would become the no. 2 overall pick in what would eventually be known as the Miami Heat draft, worked out in that it saved the Grizzlies the pain of drafting Darko Milicic.
(The Grizzlies would eventually trade Darko to the Knicks for Quentin Richardson, who they then flipped for Zach Randolph, meaning….EVEN SOMETHING AS HORRIBLE AS ACQUIRING DARKO MILIC WORKED OUT FOR THE GRIZZLIES!)
From 2008 through today the Grizzlies have made some of the more puzzling moves in the NBA, and yet every single one of them has led them here, to the Western Conference Finals.
The Gasol(s) Trade
Frame your arguments however you’d like in the comments sections or on Twitter (and I hope you do), but no amount of hindsight can hide that, at the time, trading Pau Gasol to the Lakers in exchange for scraps was amongst the most lopsided trades in NBA history.
Yes, the Grizzlies were in a position where trading Pau Gasol was a must, but he was a franchise-quality big man who immediately transformed the Lakers into NBA champions (after failing in the NBA Finals his first half season there, of course). In exchange the Grizzlies eventually received cap space in Kwame Brown’s expiring contract, Javaris Crittenton, and two late first round draft picks, as well as the rights to Marc Gasol.
Pau and the Lakers have since faded, and Marc is the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year and in contention for mantle of game’s best big man. But absolutely no one knew Marc Gasol would develop into THIS, and anyone who would tell you otherwise is a liar.
In an interview with Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley referred to the Grizzlies assets as cap space. Though he didn’t regret the trade, he did wonder if his team got the best value possible:
“I don’t know if I got the most value,” Heisley confessed. “Maybe our people should’ve shopped (Gasol) more and maybe we would’ve gotten more, done a better deal. Maybe Chris did call every team in the league. I don’t think he did, but maybe he should’ve…”
Heisley didn’t mention Marc Gasol in the interview, no one did. The last time most people saw the younger Gasol was as a pudgy high school center with limited prospects.
It’s okay to admit that, even with the way things turned out, this was a bad trade turned positive purely by fortune in the same way that Popovich and Buford admit that finding Manu Ginobili had little to do with their scouting staff and everything to do with luck. As Popovich has said repeatedly, if they knew how things would turn out, they wouldn’t have waited so long to take him.
The Zach Randolph Trade
With the cap space vacated by the Pau Gasol trade, the Grizzlies swung a deal to acquire Zach Randolph, solidifying what would eventually be the Grizzlies devastating frontline. But at the time Randolph was a cautionary tale, though admittedly a talented one. Nothing in his stops in Portland, New York, or Los Angeles revealed any signs of hope, and certainly no rational basketball mind would have traded Pau Gasol for Randolph straight-up, which is what appeared to be the case at the time.
But few, even amongst Memphis fans, could have predicted the connection the city would have with Randolph and how that would change him. Though I have no proof, I feel confident in saying that Randolph in a Grizzlies uniform doesn’t work in Vancouver—which as a side note, was another Grizzlies move widely panned (moving from Vancouver to NBA’s smallest market) that worked out wonderfully for the NBA (see how these moves are all connected?). Randolph, along with Tony Allen, embraced Memphis’ blue collar work ethic, which became the culture by which this team operates.
It is, perhaps, the only location in the NBA where this roster could thrive, and that stands as a testament to the city and its wonderful fans.
The Mike Conley extension
Mike Conley was the no. 4 overall pick in the draft, so there were some expectations in place for him to succeed. But headed to the end of his rookie contract Conley was seriously underperforming relative to those expectations.
When the Memphis Grizzlies announced Conley’s contract extension it prompted CBS blogger and huge Grizzlies enthusiast Matt Moore to write a column with the headline: GRIZZLIES COMMIT FRANCHISE SUICIDE, EXTEND CONLEY. The post has since been removed, but the sentiment was the same everywhere and I’ll refer you to Kelly Dwyer’s post over at Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie, who touches on Moore’s column:
“Bidding against absolutely nobody, they signed Conley to a deal that will have him making eight figures over the last couple years of its existence. That alone should make your hair stand on end. And as Moore pointed out, there is absolutely nothing in Conley’s game nor at-best potential that should allow for anyone to think that he should even approach an average salary, something that would pay him about half of what he’s due to make in a few years.”
That albatross of a contract appears to be a bargain now, and that Conley against Tony Parker no longer seems like an overwhelming mismatch speaks of how much Conley has grown since receiving his contract. And if the Grizzlies had faith in anything, perhaps it was his work ethic and the team’s culture, but those aren’t tangible qualities that would have had them competing with suitors for Conley at that price.
And the rest of the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad decisions…
Every front office makes a mistake or two, or three. Often times just one of these can cripple a franchise for years to come. And yet, the Grizzlies have made some of the most questionable moves this side of David Kahn. And they’ve thrived.
Trading Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo (which admittedly looks a lot worse now than it did then), picking Hasheem Thabeet with the no. 2 overall pick in a draft with James Harden, Ricky Rubio, and Stephen Curry still available (if it’s any consolation, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets at the beginning of the season, making it two teams that have kept Thabeet over Harden).
Teams that pass up or trade even one franchise player—and from the looks of it Curry and Harden appear to be as much while Rubio looks to be, at the very least, special—aren’t supposed to contend for championships. They’re supposed to turn into the Milwaukee Bucks of the world, trading the draft rights to Dirk Nowitzki for rotation filler and wondering the desert of mediocrity for the next decade as penance.
And yet here are the Grizzlies in spite of all this. Hell, maybe even because of it. Maybe there’s something to an island of misfit toys that no one else wanted finding sanctity in each other and in a city the NBA underestimated.
Rubio and love never made the playoffs while Harden was eliminated in the first round by the team that had Thabeet. Stephen Curry and the Warriors were eliminated by the very Spurs the Grizzlies will be playing, coached by a man who publicly called into question the sanity of the trade that ignited everything the Grizzlies have built today. A trade that helped Memphis upset these Spurs just two years earlier in the first round.
I’m not sure what to make of this other than great things often come from humble beginnings. Going back to 2008, the Memphis rebuilding plan made about as much sense as investing in lottery tickets, right down to the odds for success.
And yet, here are your Memphis Grizzlies, gritting and grinding and generally living life as the greatest team that was ever poorly constructed. Everyone questioned how they got here, but no one denies that they’ve arrived.
Jesse Blanchard writes for Project Spurs and ESPN San Antonio. You can find him on Twitter at @blanchardJRB.